This book is a joint adventure in which five authors, working closely together, have attempted to choose the fifty leading painters in 20th-century American art. None of us, I think, would have felt inclined to advance our individual selections as more than personal opinion. The fact that these names were finally chosen, after much soul-searching, by five people whose lives are all spent in the study of modern art is still no guarantee that mistakes have not been made, but at least it lessens the likelihood of prejudice. As a matter of fact, about two-thirds of our choices were unanimous--these being, for the most part, established artists, several of them now dead--and we are not so humble as to believe that time will soon reverse our estimate of them. The difficulty, as always, came with the younger painters and with certain others whose quality has a narrower appeal. We are all sure that if this group were to be selected again five years hence, it would include many different names. But we also believe that, while judgments are difficult in a field so near us in time, there is still no excuse for avoiding them.
These, then, are the fifty painters who did the most, we believe, to form American art in the 20th century. This is not quite the same as saying "the best," since there are a few men here who made fruitful innovations that affected the course of our painting but who did not, themselves, live up to their individual promise. In most cases, however, quality and importance are closely linked, and the enduring influences have been those that sprang from high creative ability.
Only after our selection was completed did we face the problem of who should write on whom. We had decided from the beginning to abandon any thought of a continuous text or even a consistent approach. Rather, the book was conceived as a series of essays which would draw without restriction on the large fund of knowledge and understanding represented by the five contributors. Artists were assigned, so far as possible, to those authors who had already made a special study of their work, but it would be a mistake to assume that the ten artists treated by each contributor represent his exclusive choice. The truth is that our preferences and enthusiasms overlapped at many points.
The book has been divided into three chronological sections with brief introductions by the editor. Artists have been grouped according to the period in which they did their first notable work, though usually both earlier and later paintings by each are illustrated. This is a fairly arbitrary order, but it has at least the advantage of bringing together men who reached . . .